03 August 2015

Beyond the Shock Box (Slight Return)

On retiring the notion of the "banality of evil"...

"A spate of books have made similar arguments about the psychology of Nazi functionaries in general (see Haslam & Reicher, 2007a, for a review). They all suggest that very few Nazis could be seen as ‘simply following orders’ – not least because the orders issued by the Nazi hierarchy were typically very vague. As a result, individuals needed to display imagination and initiative in order to interpret the commands they were given and to act upon them. As Ian Kershaw notes, Nazis didn’t obey Hitler, they worked towards him, seeking to surpass each other in their efforts. But by the same token, they also had a large degree of discretion. Indeed, as Laurence Rees (2005) notes in his recent book on Auschwitz and the ‘final solution’, it was this that made the Nazi system so dynamic. Even in the most brutal of circumstances, people did not have to kill and only some chose to do so. So, far from simply ‘finding themselves’ in inhumane situations or inhumane groups, the murderers actively committed themselves to such groups. They actively created inhumane situations and placed themselves at their epicentre. This was true even of concentration camp regimes:
'Individuals demonstrated commitment by acting, on their own initiative, with greater brutality than their orders called for. Thus excess did not spring from mechanical obedience. On the contrary; its matrix was a group structure where it was expected that members exceed the limits of normal violence.' [Sofsky, 1993, p.228]
"In short, the true horror of Eichmann and his like is not that their actions were blind. On the contrary, it is that they saw clearly what they did, and believed it to be the right thing to do.

"But even if Hitler’s killers were not the mindless functionaries of fable, doesn’t the work of Milgram and Zimbardo still show that ‘ordinary men’ can become brutal by becoming mindless under the influence of leaders and groups? Not really. For if the studies of Milgram and Zimbardo are subjected to the same close critical scrutiny that has transformed Holocaust scholarship, their explanations are also found wanting. In arguing this, we are not questioning the fact that both studies are of great importance in showing that ordinary people can do extreme things. The issue, rather, is why they do them." 
- S. A. Haslam and S. D. Reicher, "Questioning the Banality of Evil"  

Chances are that if you've ever given such socio-behavioral dynamics much thought or analysis (or ever held a job in certain types of environs), intuition might've led you to find the conclusions of Arendt, Milgram, Zimbardo, et al., lacking. Not that Haslam & Reicher's unpacking fully unpacks the matter, but it at least points in a more astute direction.

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